What’s in a name? God reveals himself to us in what we call him

Barney Zwartz reflects on the variety of names the Bible uses for God - and what these names might teach us about him.

Names in human history have often had a particular significance that goes beyond personal identification but expresses someone’s nature or achievements. Think William the Conqueror or Jesus (in Hebrew: Yeshua, God saves).

When it comes to God, how can we humans understand an infinite deity, unless he reveals himself to us in ways we can grasp?

One of the most important ways God does this, members of the Abrahamic faiths believe, is in the variety of names by which he is known, which show his majesty, power, protection, provision, love and tenderness.

Islam records 99 names for God, and Muslims are taught to meditate on these to increase their faith, understanding and confidence. Judaism and Christianity have a similar tradition, though fewer names.

The Old Testament has about 30 names describing God’s character and attributes. These include God (implying creator and judge), Lord (which is how we translate God’s covenant name with his people; Yahweh was in earlier times translated to Jehovah), Lord God Almighty, The Holy One of Israel, The Everlasting God, God Most High, the Lord our Righteousness, The Lord will Provide, The Lord of Hosts, The Lord is Peace, and The Lord who Heals.

Yahweh is so holy that religious Jews never use it, substituting another name, Adonai (Lord/Master). In the book of Exodus, God introduces himself to Moses by this name, translated as “I am who I am”, conveying that he is the absolute essence of existence. It is much the most common name, appearing more than 6500 times through the Bible.

One of the most evocative names is The Lord is my Shepherd. It occurs only once in the Old Testament, in the famous opening line of Psalm 23 – “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” – but the shepherd theme is consistent throughout both Old and New Testaments.

Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep.

The Prophet Isaiah wrote 2700 years ago that God tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young. A little later, according to the prophet Ezekiel, God says he himself will search for his sheep and look after them, rescuing them from all the places they were scattered.

In the New Testament, Jesus identifies himself as the good shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep. The good shepherd is willing to leave his 99 sheep to find the one who wandered off. In all, a beautiful picture of tenderness and persistence because God “is not willing that any of these little ones should perish”.

Each of the names of God teaches something unique and wonderful about him that educates, comforts and inspires believers.

Barney Zwartz is a senior fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.

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